Roger Federer put up another valiant effort against Novak Djokovic on Sunday, the reigning king of the courts.
Still, no matter how marvelous Federer looks in his Grand Slam defeats to Djokovic, the losses point to the obvious: Djokovic is the superior player now and will be for the remainder of Federer's career.
This raises questions about Federer's motivation and determination. Just how long will he remain satisfied with being second best?
Djokovic defeated Federer 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 to capture his 10th Grand Slam title and third this year. It was also his second win over Federer in a Slam this year. The two are even, 21-21, in head-to-head matches, but Federer hasn't won a Slam since Wimbledon in 2012.
Federer entered the match without having dropped a set. His serve had only been broken twice. With a sense of renewed energy, Federer wowed U.S. Open crowds with aggressive play at the net. He appeared to move faster. His backhand had extra zip. It looked like he could actually win this thing.
Yet a bruised and bleeding Djokovic, who took a nasty spill in the first set, dictated play. As wonderful as Federer played, Djokovic remained firmly in control of that match. He's just too good for Federer.
ESPN.com tennis writer Greg Garber wrote, "Federer, who ran more than twice as far as he did on average in his first six matches here, began to visibly tire. When Djokovic broke him in the first game of the fourth set, even the pro-Federer crowd seemed to lose its energy."
In his on-court interview after the match, Federer told ESPN he "Had a wonderful last two weeks. Very pleased where my game's at. Being back in the finals is where you want to be. I enjoyed it."
Still, Federer, 34, is certainly not hanging around to collect runner-up trophies. After his loss to Djokovic in the finals at Wimbledon, Federer told reporters, via ASAP Sports, that while he considers reaching the finals more positive than negative, it's not the same as winning:
You know, I still think I had a great tournament. You can have good tournaments without winning, as well, at the end. I still won six matches, lost one. The ratio still remains very good. But of course you sort of walk away empty‑handed. For me a finalist trophy is not the same. Everybody knows that.
Ranked No. 2, Federer is not some has-been waiting for wild-card favors. He's the most beloved player in the game and the second-best player on the ATP World Tour.
But when you've been the best, how difficult must it be to stand there and watch others give victory speeches? How pumped can you get for yet another title in Cincinnati, Miami, Dubai or any cities other than London, Paris, Melbourne or New York?
It's been a while since Federer had a real shot at overtaking Djokovic in the rankings. On Monday, Djokovic will have a year's worth of points (about 6,600) lead over Federer in the ATP rankings.
When being No. 1 is seemingly out of reach, you have to wonder how Federer keeps himself so prepared, in shape and motivated to keep giving it a go. How long before he wakes up one morning and decides he's had enough?
Federer has secured his legacy. He has 17 Grand Slam titles, more than any man in the history of the sport. He has the career Slam.
If he hangs around longer, his once head-to-head advantage over Djokovic might turn into the lopsided record he has against Rafael Nadal. Perhaps that's part of the motivation, being able to outlast his nemesis Nadal. Right now, Nadal's retirement looks more imminent than Federer's.
Federer is so fun to watch that tennis fans want him to play forever. Lately, he seems to be enjoying himself more. But at some point, he has to tire of giving runner-up speeches, doesn't he?
Only Federer knows the answers. What fans are left with is another post-match photo session with the unsavory look of defeat on Federer's face and so many questions.